New England Patriots: Playing the Percentages with 10 Players on the Bubble
The New England Patriots have lost just 10 players off their final 53-man roster from 2012 thus far. With so little turnover, newcomers will need to stand out even more to make a positive impression, while old holdovers must prove themselves, once again, in order to hold onto their roster spots.
Though it's still early in the process, several players have made strong impressions after OTAs and minicamp. One prevalent theme has seen undrafted rookies challenging seasoned veterans for their roles. Besides those competitions, other bubble players include those whose skill sets may become redundant given the Pats' offseason acquisitions.
With all of that in mind, here's a look at 10 players who will need good summers in order to enhance their chances of hanging around come the fall.
*All stats courtesy Pro-Football-Reference.com
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After coming over in a draft-day trade for Jeff Demps and a seventh-round pick, Blount joins a crowded running back group that includes roster locks such as Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Brandon Bolden, and, most likely, Leon Washington.
Blount took a significant pay cut to join New England, meaning that the Patriots likely view him as an end-of-the-roster player rather than an expected contributor. That doesn't mean Blount cannot bring anything to the Patriots, though, especially in the red zone.
Although New England finished third in the NFL in red-zone touchdown percentage last season, per Team Rankings.com, that ranking could take a hit if Rob Gronkowski misses the beginning of the season, as expected. Since his arrival in the NFL, Gronkowski leads all players in red-zone touchdown receptions by a wide margin.
Of Blount's 13 career touchdowns, nine have come in the red zone. Blount will probably not get the first crack at red-zone rushing opportunities, though, as Ridley did score 12 red-zone touchdowns of his own last year. Still, the Patriots could use insurance in that area.
Considering that Vereen and Washington are third-down backs and return specialists, respectively, Blount's main competition will come from second-year back Brandon Bolden. If Blount can show the tantalizing combination of speed and explosion he demonstrated during his rookie season, then he may prove to be a worthy low-risk investment.
Chances of Making the Roster: 60%
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One of the Patriots' biggest remaining needs is an ancillary edge-rusher. Although the team got promising flashes from Chandler Jones and remarkable consistency from Rob Ninkovich last season, the two combined for 14 of the team's 39 sacks in 2012, roughly 36 percent. The team will need other pass-rushers to step up in 2013 and provide more balance.
One possibility could be Jermaine Cunningham. The former Florida Gator had 2.5 sacks and provided decent pressure in sub packages during the first half of last season. But after serving a four-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs, Cunningham played sparingly the rest of the way and recorded just one tackle.
Cunningham's primary role came in the Patriots' new "NASCAR" packages, as he would line up over the opposing guard to exploit the quickness mismatch. The implementation made Cunningham the top reserve at defensive end in 2012, and it helped him produce the best results of his so-far disappointing career.
After the suspension, Cunningham will have to regain Bill Belichick's trust in training camp. But if the former second-rounder can build upon the potential he finally showed, he could not only make the team but also provide a surprising boon to the team's pass-rush.
Still, some of his biggest competition for a roster spot may come from another quiet early-round pick.
Chances of Making the Roster: 45%
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Bequette essentially took a redshirt year in 2012, as the third-rounder out of Arkansas played just 29 snaps the entire season. However, he has turned heads during spring practices this year, leading some to speculate that Bequette may play a significantly larger role in 2013 after learning from the sidelines.
The opportunity is certainly there. Ironically, some saw Bequette as an NFL-ready prospect after he totaled 23.5 sacks over his career at Fayetteville. However, the defensive end was essentially a scout team player last year. Nonetheless, Bequette's much-praised motor still shone through, as he was awarded a black jersey for practice player of the week four times last year.
This year, it appears Bequette will get a chance to shine in real game action. As Oliver Thomas noted on NE Patriots Draft.com, Bequette became utilized as an interior rusher in (very) limited snaps:
But from the very small sample size of game film available on Bequette, it is interesting to note how his application altered over time. He began as primarily a 4-3 end who could play a little bit of the “Elephant” position. Then by his last game, he was often posted up inside as a three-tech in an exotic front.
It's hard to read much into such a tiny sample size, but perhaps Bequette could emerge alongside Armond Armstead and Tommy Kelly as the team's primary interior rushers. His main advantage lies in the likelihood that the Patriots will probably provide Bequette every opportunity to justify their third-round investment in him. It's starting to look like a role he and Cunningham will battle for this summer.
Chances of Making the Roster: 65%
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You are probably wondering why you're reading about a punter. Other than backup quarterback, punter may be the least-utilized position on the Patriots' roster. Since Mesko came into the NFL in 2010, he has attempted the fewest punts of any regular punter over that time.
And yet, entering the final year of his rookie contract, Mesko still ranks in the middle of the pack on the team in terms of salary, according to OvertheCap.com. Meanwhile, the Patriots have brought in training camp competition for the first time in Mesko's career, signing two-time Ray Guy Award winner Ryan Allen.
Mesko's salary could harm him in the punting competition. Whereas the Romanian punter will make $1.3 million in 2013, Allen would earn the minimum $450,000 if he stays on the roster. The savings itself aren't overly significant, but considering Mesko will be an unrestricted free agent next year, the Patriots could look for a little more long-term security with Allen.
Strangely, Mesko's biggest advantage has nothing to do with punting, but rather the fact that he is the holder for the kicking game. Before you scoff at that, consider that long snappers and holders are only heard from if something has gone horribly wrong.
All things being equal, the value of a known quantity could be Mesko's trump card to keep him on the team for another season of sporadic activity.
Chances of Making the Roster: 70%
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At the end of last season, Fells looked like a goner. Despite signing a three-year, $5.25 million contract last offseason that set him up as the Patriots' third tight end, Fells never carved out a significant niche. Even with injuries to Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, Fells only caught four passes the entire season (albeit for an astounding 21.3 YPC). By the end of the season, he was a healthy scratch.
However, given the sudden probability that New England will open the season without its dynamic tight end duo, Fells has a second chance. Based on their offensive system, the Patriots will probably carry three or four tight ends, even without Gronk or Hernandez. No one else at the position is a lock on the current depth chart.
Fells has the skill set to play a number of different roles. When given a larger role, he has demonstrated the size to block while also putting up decent production as a receiver. In 2011 with the Broncos, he tied for third on the team in receptions and emerged as a reliable red-zone target for Tim Tebow.
If Gronkowski does indeed start the season on the PUP list, Fells could finally find a reliable role as an interim red-zone option. But first, Fells will need to beat out one of the biggest surprises from spring practices.
Chances of Making the Roster: 50%
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Undrafted rookie free agent Zach Sudfeld has stood out—quite literally. The towering 6'7'' tight end has shown surprisingly soft hands in practice, given the fact that he did not break out until his senior year at Nevada. However, with the tight end depth thinned, Sudfeld has seized the opportunity more than any other tight end on the roster.
Few, if any Pats fans, have seen Sudfeld in action. But his predraft profile paints the picture of a player whose immense physical attributes complement his natural receiving ability. In fact, according to CBS Sports, Sudfeld's healthy senior season may be more indicative of his potential:
After redshirting in 2007, his continuous bout with injuries began. Sudfeld missed the 2008 season due to injury, and underwent six surgeries over a career that lasted six years at Nevada.
Sudfeld enjoyed a strong - and healthy - senior season, catching 45 passes for 598 yards and a team-high eight touchdowns. He scored another touchdown rushing and was named second-team All-Mountain West.
"Maybe we're making up for lost time a little bit," Sudfeld told RGJ.com during the season.
One consideration that may help Sudfeld's chances is the Patriots' experience in 2011 with young tight ends on the bubble. New England tried to sneak Lee Smith and Will Yeatman onto the practice squad through waivers, but both were claimed by other teams. Sudfeld still faces a difficult battle, but he's at least caught the attention of Belichick and the shockingly tight-end-needy Patriots.
Chances of Making the Roster: 50%
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If I told you a six-foot-plus rookie receiver was seizing first-team reps, you'd probably be excited about Aaron Dobson's progress. However, the second-rounder has been usurped by Kenbrell Thompkins, an undrafted rookie out of Cincinnati.
Along with Sudfeld, Thompkins has been one of the major surprises early on. His combination of size and above-average speed allow him to play outside, filling a major need. In his senior season, Thompkins demonstrated some big-play ability with an impressive 15.9 YPC average. That ranked sixth in the Big East among receivers with at least 30 receptions.
Though Thompkins doesn't necessarily have the explosion to match those standards in the NFL, his skill set seemingly illustrates a player who could play outside and in the slot. Indeed, his scouting report on NFL.com notes that while he "goes up and fight(s) for jump balls," like an outside receiver, he also "owns the foot quickness and flexibility to drop his hips and cut on outs and comebacks routes, and also the shake and hands off the line to beat press coverage," like a slot receiver.
With 11 receivers still on the roster, Thompkins will need to sustain his performance in training camp. Though the former Bearcat took first-team reps in minicamp, his fellow first-team receiver may be his biggest competition for a roster spot.
Chances of Making the Roster: 35%
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The nine-year veteran Jenkins was the other first-team receiver, as his experience has provided an early edge over the Pats' plethora of youngsters.
Throughout spring, Patriots reporters—like Andy Hart of Patriots Football Weekly—have been less than impressed with the receiver's diminishing physical ability. Though Jenkins hasn't suffered much in the way of statistical regression, most agree that the receiver has had difficulty creating separation in recent seasons. For someone who was never particularly explosive in the first place, that could hinder his ability to make a positive impression in preseason games against live competition.
Jenkins does come with a reliable pair of hands though, the one skill that has never wavered in his career. Per Doug Kyed of NESN, Jenkins has had just five drops in the last three seasons combined, ranking him near the top of eligible receivers. Combined with his 6'4'' frame, that skill has generally negated his lack of separation speed.
If nothing else, Jenkins seems like a Deion Branch-type of player, one whose veteran savvy makes him a good locker room presence and mentor for young receivers. History has shown that if a receiver can run smart routes and show sure hands, that generally earns him Tom Brady's acceptance. Given the Patriots' youth and uncertainty at the position, Jenkins could stick, at least at the beginning of the season.
Chances of Making the Roster: 55%
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It might seem strange to include Gregory on this list, considering he started every game he suited up for last season, but as the Ravens exposed in the AFC championship game, opposing offenses were free to go over the middle against the Patriots with the safety combination of Gregory and Devin McCourty.
Obviously, McCourty isn't going anywhere, being the team's best playmaker in the secondary. That makes Gregory's style a little redundant—something the Patriots clearly recognized when they chose to sign veteran Adrian Wilson this offseason.
Moreover, it's not as if Gregory is a shut-down coverage safety. He's come under fire throughout his career for not being the prototypical physical strong safety and for occasionally demonstrating some puzzling tackling angles. For instance, this cop-out against Dennis Pitta was one of the worst plays of the year for New England, though McCourty also shirked his tackling duties there.
Granted, Gregory wasn't a total liability, and he did finish off the best play (or at least the funniest play) of the Patriots' season. Still, his roster spot may be tied to the development of 2012 second-rounder Tavon Wilson. If Wilson can demonstrate consistency in coverage and build upon the promise he showed in accounting for six turnovers last year, his size (6'0", 210) could be more of what the Pats' secondary needs.
Chances of Making the Roster: 50%
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Of course, no list would be complete without the world's favorite third-string quarterback.
At this point, that's exactly what Tebow is—a quarterback. All the speculation over his role as an H-back or tight end appears tabled for now. According to Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston, the Patriots have "made it pretty clear" that Tebow is in Foxborough for quarterback development.
With Brady and second-stringer Ryan Mallett being locks to make the roster (assuming Mallett isn't traded), that means Tebow must prove he has enough promise if the Patriots are going to burn a roster spot to essentially redshirt him. Recently, the Patriots have only kept three quarterbacks the year after spending a mid-round pick on one, like Kevin O'Connell in 2008 and Mallett two years ago.
There's not much need to rehash the things Tebow must improve upon in order to stay on the roster, a topic that has been debated ad nauseum. It is worth noting, however, that one factor that may inadvertently work in Tebow's favor is all the off-field turmoil the Pats have experienced recently.
Belichick has taken chances on character recently, and his gambles are starting to backfire with Hernandez's arrest and Brandon Spikes' refusal to attend voluntary OTAs. Tebow's sterling character and locker room leadership may prove conducive in steadying some of the chaos surrounding the team, so long as Belichick can stifle the media attention.
Still, the Patriots remain a tight-knit unit with plenty of veteran leadership, and it would be shocking to see them collapse under the off-field scrutiny. Unless Tebow demonstrates marked and unexpected improvement, it might be time for the man who once had eerie mojo with the Biblical passage "John 3:16" to start praying again.
Chances of Making the Roster: 31.6%